Macedonia’s prime minister has insisted he will press on with changing his country’s name to North Macedonia despite a referendum on the issue attracting just a third of voters.
Zoran Zaev said that despite the low turnout on Sunday, the very high proportion of yes votes – 91% – gave him the mandate to proceed with the change.
Under an accord struck with Greece in June, Athens will no longer object to the Balkan country joining the EU and Nato as long as it adds the geographical qualifier “North” to its name, to distinguish it from Greece’s region of the same name just across the border.
The deal would orientate Macedonia towards the West and thwart Russian influence in the region.
Opponents of the agreement, including Macedonia’s president, pushed for a boycott of the referendum, saying the name change was a humiliation and an attack on national sovereignty.
They now argue that the low turnout makes the result void.
But supporters insisted the result had legitimacy and said that if opponents had really wanted to block the deal then they should have turned up at the polls and voted no, rather than simply abstaining.
The government insisted all along that the referendum was consultative and that turnout need not reach 50% for it to carry weight.
"More than 90 percent of the total votes are ‘yes’, so now it is parliament’s turn to confirm the will of the majority," the prime minister said.
He said there was “no alternative solution” to resolving Macedonia’s diplomatic row with Greece, which has dragged on ever since the Balkan country of two million people declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
“The voices of more than 600,000 citizens constitute an appeal to politicians,” he wrote on Twitter.
The government needs the support of two-thirds of MPs in order to ratify the deal.
The ruling coalition has 69 MPs in the 120-member parliament and so would need to secure the support of at least 12 opposition politicians in order to push the deal through.
If that cannot be achieved, early elections will be called, Mr Zaev said. If he wins, he will have a fresh mandate to press on with the name change.
But Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, said the government had "lost its legitimacy".
Greece said it was still prepared to go ahead with the deal, if Skopje can overcome domestic opposition.
The result was welcomed by the US, Nato and the EU, which are keen to see Macedonia brought into the Western fold amid allegations that Moscow tried to scupper the referendum with an aggressive disinformation campaign on social media.
The State Department described the referendum result as a “historic opportunity” to end the impasse between Macedonia and Greece, both of which regard themselves as heirs to the ancient kingdom of Macedonia ruled by Alexander the Great.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, said the offer of membership was still on the table but insisted that "all national procedures have to be completed” by Skopje.